Over Memorial Day weekend, there was a pretty serious brush fire in Grant County that came uncomfortably close to to the Gorge Amphitheater. It was so close that people could see the smoke billowing up over the hills, and it caused a serious concern for the attendees and staff at the Sasquatch Music Festival. The Sheriff’s office issued a level 3 evacuation notice for many areas surrounding the Gorge (Level 3 evacuation is a mandatory evacuation). This lead to a lot of confusion as to why the the surrounding area was being evacuated and not the Gorge itself. In fact, as some people were trying to leave, staff were encouraging them to stay. We are here to clear up the confusion as to why certain decisions were made.
We took the time to speak with Micheal Ager, a King County professional firefighter who has also fought wild fires with the US Forest Service and spent time working with FEMA in national disaster areas. Most of us don’t know anything about what actually goes into disaster planning and damage mitigation, but Ager definitely has that resume.
Anyone who has ever been to the Gorge knows the campground and the venue is covered in fresh green grass. They also know that the surrounding areas are full of dry bushes and tumbleweeds. For this very reason, the Gorge is one of the safest places to be during a fire in that area. When forest firefighters are working, they have to make a plan for a “Safe Area”, or a place they can go to escape the flames. Given the layout of the Gorge, it is reasonable to assume if the fire were to head in that direction, emergency services would have gathered everyone in the center, formed a perimeter, and the fire would have gone around the entire complex, according to Ager.
Now imagine that they did have a large-scale evacuation of the Gorge. Try to imagine 30K+ people trying to exit in a panic. It would have been a literal nightmare. In addition to the panicked drivers there could have been fire close to or surrounding the road ways. People would be at risk of suffocation from the smoke. It would be hard to see, hard to breathe, let alone hard to drive, Ager told us.
Given all these points, people still attempted to leave. On their way out, they were told by personnel that they should stay. Their advice was two-fold: 1. Because of all the reasons explained above and 2: This would stagger the amount of vehicles joining the other people already under a mandatory evacuation in surrounding areas.
Luckily the worst that came of the situation was that a few of the bands weren’t able to perform because they couldn’t make it to the venue. There was zero loss of life caused by the fire or panicked citizens. At most, this situation caused some patrons to feel slighted or mislead by the managing staff at the Gorge. “Please understand that life safety, planing, and preparation for emergencies is the top priority for everyone involved in emergency management,” Ager added. You may take issue with a lot of their operations, but there is way more that goes into planning and executing a show at that enormous venue than you probably know.